Tag Archives: Vance Campbell

The Golden Age of Gay Bars in YYC

Calgary was booming in the 70s. The city’s population increased about 50% in those 10 years. Club Carousel, the only gay club at the beginning of the decade saw its popularity wane as commercial gay bars opened in the city. The owners and operators had more capital to invest in their emerging discotheques, and the growing gay community flocked to them.

The Parkside Continental ran from 1973-1986 and was located at the corner of 13th Avenue and 4th Street SW (where Shelf Life Books is currently). The Parkside was named after a famous gay tavern in Toronto. Vance Campbell, a businessman and gay bar owner from Vancouver moved to Calgary to start the Parkside with local partners.

In the early years, there were provincial regulations about food being served with alcohol at bars. Rudy Labuhn, who was initially a DJ at the club and then manager, remembered that when the Parkside began they served 50 cent burgers to all drinkers.  He explained that the Province also limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Fortunately, a straight bar called Lucifer challenged those rules successfully ushering in the age of disco to Calgary. Interestingly, the bar would end most nights with a song that was decidedly more downtempo: Broadway singer Maureen McGovern’s song, “The Continental.”

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A grainy image of Vance Campbell in front of the Parkside Continental from the Body Politic, Sept. 1980.

The Parkside expanded upstairs creating a second bar called The Green Room. The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch in April 1976 was founded there; their first coronation followed in January 1977 at the Holiday Inn Downtown. Drag legend, Sandy St. Peters who grew up in Calgary and lived and performed across Canada, entertained occasionally at the Parkside. After a big Saturday night at the bar, she would run across the street to campily welcome churchgoers arriving Sunday morning for early service at the First Baptist Church. In addition to drag performances, Eartha Kitt famously did a highly regarded concert one night in the Green Room.

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Sandy St. Peters (1953-2001). Image Source: YouTube

Vance Campbell proved to be a divisive figure at times publicly opposing the local gay activist community, which revolved around Gay Information & Resources Calgary (GIRC), headquartered only one block away. He was described by the Body Politic in 1980 as one of the power brokers in the gay community “confident enough of his position to write to the mayor and counter GIRC’s claim that Calgary could face a gay rights march.”

Another reason perhaps why Campbell felt powerful was he was an owner of Calgary’s other gay bar of note: Myrt’s.  Opened in 1976, the sign on the building said Myrt’s Beauty Parlour and was located at 808 9 Ave. SW (now a parking lot). This gay lounge and disco were initially open Friday and Saturday nights for men only. As its popularity grew, it operated six nights/week and became a mixed club, reportedly played the best music in the city.

Parkside Discotheques

Advertisement in GIRC’s 1977 publication, “Gay Moods”

A hallway off the dance floor led to a 150-seat theatre known as the “Backlot” which also served as an after-hours bar. The gay community was encouraged to use it as much as possible; it was the venue for emerging theatre artists, Imperial Court drag shows, Mr Butch Calgary “Slave Auctions” and, on Sunday mornings, Metropolitan Community Church services. Myrts’ final song every night was Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”

Butch Bucks

Butch Bucks from a Calgary Slave Auction in 1978. Donated to the YYC Gay Archives by Terry MacKenzie.

The bar closed on New Year’s Eve 1981/1982 as the building fell victim to boomtown redevelopment. Myrt’s and the Backlot briefly moved to 17th avenue before it closed again. One former patron broke into the site and retrieved the neon “Backlot” sign. The preserved sign now hangs over the door of the contemporary Backlot bar on 10th Ave. SW.

Backlot

Neon sign at the Backlot Bar, 2017. Photo: Kevin Allen.

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Infighting in 1980

Gay Information and Resources Calgary (GIRC) hosted the 8th Annual National Conference of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition (CLGRC). Typically all of the cities who had hosted the conference in years prior also had coordinated a parade. However, factions in Calgary’s gay community were opposed to having a gay rights march here. The most prominent voices against were gay club owner Vance Campbell and Reverend Lloyd Greenway of MCC Calgary.

At a feisty public forum, sponsored by GIRC on April 7th, the parade’s opposition was strongly manifest, forcing GIRC to reluctantly cancel the planned march and propose a rally instead. The critique against the march centred around fears of property damage as well as religious, homophobic backlash.

Vance Campbell, who owned the Parkside Continental and who also was a part owner of Myrts and the Backlot, sent a letter to Mayor Ross Alger regarding the parade, stating: “The remarks attributed to GIRC are not fully representative of the gay community, but of a small group of persons interested in creating a problem where previously there had not been one.” He copied his missive to Calgary’s Chief of Police, Brian Sawyer.

Rev. Lloyd Greenway said, “We’ve had it good here for so long. There are other ways to get rights than be going out and marching. Calgary does not need a bunch of eastern radicals – and believe me I’m from the east and I know what they’re like – marching through downtown.”

The Imperial Court of the Chinook Arch was on the record saying: “the minute you start flaunting yourself, you’ve got a problem. [The march] is an embarrassment to the entire community.”

There was also a petition, whose source was unknown, circulating in local gay clubs, addressed to the Mayor and Chief of Police to thwart any proposed gay rights march.

The divisive debate was widely covered in local press, and saw several gay sources make controversial statements such as suggesting that there was no discrimination in Alberta, and that gays have it good in Calgary. GIRC, and the rest of the activist community in Calgary (as well as across the country), strenuously disagreed. The Body Politic, Canada’s gay liberation journal, wrote an editorial decidedly in support of a march.

By mid-May GIRC’s Board of Directors decided to obtain a parade permit – just in case – should the conference delegates decide to hold a march on their own accord. However, Chief Sawyer refused to sign a parade permit and told GIRC that participants in an unauthorized march would be arrested and charged with creating an unlawful public disturbance.

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GIRC President Bob Harris talking to Police at City Hall Rally, June 28, 1980.  Photo source: Body Politic, Issue 65 August 1980.

In the end, about 40 angry conference delegates massed on City Hall on June 28th, for refusing to issue the parade permit. They silently picketed for about 30 minutes: purposefully silent so as “not to create a public disturbance.” They then sang, “O Canada,” and headed off to their planned gay rights rally on St. Patrick’s Island. Ironically, the assembled group marched over there without any trouble.

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Calgary Activist Stephen Lock at City Hall Protest.  Source: Body Politic, Issue 65, August 1980.

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